Sir David Lean, the Oscar-winning British auteur known for adventurous historical epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago (among a host of others), has been gone for more than 15 years now, but his collection of tasteful, exotic dramas are left behind to remind us of this particular spirit of Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking that is reliant on technical prowess and courage. Lean’s organic brand of directing is something that has fallen by the wayside in this age of computer-generated backdrops and green screens.
His last film, 84’s A Passage to India, deals with the effects of colonization in India in the early 1920s with very little political conviction and a heaping dose of gentility. Everything is very polite.
The main action, if you could call anything in this languid, classy adaptation of E.M. Forster’s only proper novel “action”, revolves around Miss Adela Quested’s (the perfectly-cast, Oscar-nominated Judy Davis) personal, sexual, and political awakenings, as she books the titular passage to the foreign land. Miss Quested is accompanied by her fiancée’s mother Mrs. Moore, played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who copped a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her take on a dotty, sweet little old British lady. The two women are spoiled, sheltered upper-crust society women who know very little of the suffering taking place in India.
Written, directed, and edited by Lean, the opulent grandeur of the film’s composition is the biggest draw. As he showed in films like A Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, the director had a knack for capturing the colors and exoticism of whatever location he was working in, as well as the innate repression and quiet hysteria that come from being a stranger in a strange place.
Lean’s gift for visual storytelling must be applauded. He used an old-school visual vocabulary that established his point of view through the use of vibrant colors: marigold yellows, royal purples, and spicy blood orange sunsets all pop out in the new, spotlessly clean digital transfer, while the crowds of over 1,000 extras add authenticity to the proceedings.
The crispness of the print forces the viewer to let the sumptuous imagery and its many textures (from the softness of velvety red curtains, and the glare of brightly sparkling jewels to the indigo water shimmering in the white hot starlight) wash over them. It is easy to become enveloped in this bygone era, to experience the disorienting trip taken by Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested.
The stiff, buttoned-down Brits who live in India immediately tell the curious women that “East is East”, and that under no circumstances are they to mingle with Indians. The presence of the pompous aristocratic Englanders is juxtaposed with the poverty and despair in the streets of India, where Dr. Aziz (a fantastic Victor Banerjee) tries to understand the women’s motives.
Questions of cultural appropriation and exoticism immediately are addressed by the filmmaker as Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested begin to reach out to Aziz and to the other Indian neighbors, but Lean makes two huge mistakes: first all of the Indians speak English, even to one another. Second, Sir Alec Guiness (best known as Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars films, and also for his Bridge on the River Kwai Best Actor Oscar win), plays the pivotal role of Professor Godbole in brown face with a shamefully distracting Indian accent that borders, in its depiction, on racist.
Miss Quested is intrigued by the Marabar Caves, and, since she is a woman, she is expected to sit home while her fiancée, a judge, dictates what is appropriate for both her and the local population. Usually erroneously. The bored woman identifies, perhaps in a misguided way, with the plight of the Indians, who are kept in check by the racist British regime, as she too is kept from doing what she pleases because of social convention.
“Adventures do occur,” offers Mrs. Moore, over cucumber sandwiches on the terrace. “But not punctually.” Miss Quested’s thirst for the knowledge of the unknown belies the trappings of proper British society. She doesn’t want to sit around, under lock and key, drinking tea and playing mindless games. She wants excitement. Dr. Aziz, a doctor who is also searching for a greater truth, agrees to take the women out to the caves.
In this new edition, fans are treated to an entire disc of extras features and bonus documentaries, including the story of the author, Forster (who also wrote Howard’s End). He used his personal experiences in the country as a basis for this novel, with which he wanted to explore the racial tensions with a balanced, observational perspective. Forster wanted to show how hard it was to nurture relationships for both groups of people. This would be his only full-length novel, beloved by his countrymen.
Lean’s own experience in India (which included visiting often and marrying an Indian woman) contributed to his desire to make a film in the country. A producer on the film said that Lean was “terribly upset” when another Brit, Richard Attenborough, made the Indian epic Gandhi, around the same time. A Passage to India was the director’s first film in 14 years, and the script, which was written by Lean in New Delhi, took more than 18 months to finish.
Filming took place on location in India on a huge, constructed back lot set. In some cases the set was even grown: for the crucial scene where Miss Quested stumbles onto a gaggle of erotic relics in a field of elephant grass, an acre of grass was planted months in advance so they could get the perfect, controlled setting.
The craftsmen built the town square from the ground up, including all of the storefronts and booths that lined the “street”, and stocked each stall with appropriate goods such as spices and local foods. This kind of artisanal building of sets is an aspect of filmmaking that seems to be missing in contemporary movies, though recent Lean-like epics such as The Painted Veil echo this hands-on aesthetic.
What happened to Miss Quested in the Marabar Caves? This is the question Forster, Lean, and all of the people involved with A Passage to India grapple with, but everyone attached to the production insists that the outcome of her fateful adventure in the Indian countryside is something best left to reader’s or viewer’s imaginations.
Lean didn’t explore the characters with much care, either. He famously argued with the introspective Davis during filming (and in the extras this is brought up again, but the participants insist that it was just Davis’ modern acting methods that turned many off). Many of the actors and crew interviewed talk about how Lean was more concerned with the technical aspects of the film, and preferred to let the actors figure their characters out without the benefit of rehearsals or much direction. It’s as though the acting is secondary to the scenery.
The main character of the film is not Miss Quested, nor is it Mrs. Moore or Dr. Aziz. It is India itself, whose operatically sweeping vistas are photographed with meticulous detail and a natural curiosity. The canvas of imagery painted by Lean’s camera overpowers the director’s own script and his disjointed editing doesn’t do the performers any favors. But this is a must-see because of the unique style of visual filmic language employed by Lean that died with him.
A Passage to India is a solid throwback to an era where the scope and poetry of the eloquent imagery were the only things that mattered, but even in 1984, when this film was released, this kind of old Hollywood-style approach was on its way out. It doesn’t really fit neatly in a modern filmmaking age, where instead of constructing a set by hand, we now only require a little imagination and a computer.